We live in a hard world. There is so much hurt and heartache and yet there is no way that I could sit with my clients day after day, week after week, year after year without holding out tremendous hope. My elevator speech has always included the phrase, “helping individuals courageously battle through the hurts and hang-ups of life” and while I agree with that sentiment it is admittedly elementary in understanding.
As I have grown in my work with clients, I have come to understand that seeking out therapy surely involves the hurts and hang ups of life but often times, that is only what brings the client into therapy. This is only the presenting issue. What emerges is so much deeper and complex and often involves a story of trauma.
When I was a young professional, I was naïve to think that trauma was exclusive to sexual abuse, abandonment, and deep dysfunctional families marred by drug use, addiction and neglect. The Hollywood version of trauma. If you aren’t in the trenches of the helping industry, you might think this of trauma as well.
Really though trauma is everywhere.
Trauma isn’t so much about the incident itself but the perception of the victim to the specific incident. Of course, understanding the incident is necessary but the same event can affect two different people in two very different ways and that is what makes understanding and treating trauma so complex.
Who does trauma impact?
The Suburban house wife
The trust fund kiddo
The homecoming queen
The nerdy kid
These are the types of clients who have trauma.
Trauma comes in all shapes and sizes and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Trauma does not discriminate.
The American Psychological Association classifies trauma as,“an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape or natural disaster.”But this is woefully shortsighted.
Trauma, in my opinion is much better classified by the reaction more than the event.
The APA goes on to say, “Immediately after the event, shock and denial are typical. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”This helps widen the perspective, but I believe we are still lacking some sort of understanding about what a traumatic event really is.
Ultimately because we don’t really know the magnitude of the traumatic event until we sit with the person that endured it. And ultimately understand their version of the trauma.
The Center for Anxiety Disorders has a broader explanation that I resonate with. “In general, trauma can be defined as a psychological, emotional response to an event or an experience that is deeply distressing or disturbing.”
When we are ready to classify any disturbing event as traumatic then we are more ready as helping professionals to validate and contain our clients experience. The first step in trauma healing comes as we validate the experience. And potentially even helping our clients understand that what they experienced was in fact traumatic.
I am a test case in this understanding. I believed that what I went through in high school wasn’t traumatic because I minimized my experience and chalked it up to adolescent behavior. Unfortunately, so did many clinicians. Instead the focus was more on my family of origin and some of the dysfunction that existed there. While that was important, and that understanding was indeed necessary, it wasn’t until much later in my own therapeutic journey did I come to understand the real magnitude of my trauma. That my high school experience was in fact traumatic and that was an eye-opening event in my own growth.
It took a lot of years to understand that my acne and subsequent bullying was in fact traumatic and that led to a deep sense of shame. Using that understanding of trauma I have now been able to “Monday morning quarterback” my own therapeutic work and look for holes or gaps in my own journey because there wasn’t a thorough understanding of the trauma. This has been monumental in my work with clients.
Understanding trauma and the impact on the body has been a watershed moment for me in my work as a clinician, but I couldn’t do the work I do with my clients if I hadn’t done the work myself. And that might be the most crucial step in healing.
Healer, Heal Thyself.